The GI Bill: Legacy of the Doughboys—Part I, WWI Lessons
By Jennifer D. Keene
via the Roads to the Great War web site
Why is World War I important in American history? Quite simply, the Great War generation played a critical role in constructing the modern U.S. Army, turning World War II soldiers into the most privileged veteran generation in American history, and determining what mass military service would mean for millions of American men throughout the 20th century . . .
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act (1944), commonly known as the GI Bill, is rightly celebrated for the renewal that unemployment, education, and housing loan benefits gave millions of World War II veterans. The law marked a poignant ending as well. The signing of the GI Bill two weeks after American troops landed on the Normandy beaches of France did not signal the end of their war. Instead, 1944 marked the symbolic exit of World War I veterans from the national political arena after more than 25 years in the public spotlight. The GI Bill is rarely remembered as the final legacy of World War I to the nation. Yet ignoring Great War veterans' authorship of the GI Bill results in an imperfect understanding of why the law took the form it did when it did. Line by line, the most comprehensive piece of social welfare legislation the United States has ever known, it illustrated in vivid detail the struggles World War I veterans had endured to give meaning to their social contract with the state. For the first and perhaps only time, wartime military service became a steppingstone to a better life. The final legacy of World War I created one of the most prosperous, advantaged generations in American history.
Once the United States had entered World War II, ensuring that history did not repeat itself became the primary objective both of the U.S. Army and of Great War veterans. To learn from its past experiences with conscripted civilians, the General Staff ordered a series of studies of the army's previous experience with black soldiers, courts-martial, relations between American and Allied soldiers, collecting soldiers' votes, desertions, and demobilization. Hoping to avoid the psychiatric breakdowns observed among shell-shocked soldiers during the Great War, the army at first tried to weed out (through induction center rejections or discharges) those who seemed predisposed to mental breakdowns. Eventually realizing that this practice created a way, so feared at the beginning of World War I, for malingerers to avoid military service, the army then reverted to the battlefield treatments used effectively 25 years earlier.
Picking up where the Morale Division had left off in 1919, the soldiers' opinion studies undertaken by Samuel Stouffer and his colleagues in the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division of the War Department provide some clues about how much influence civilian soldiers wielded within the new wartime army. The Stouffer studies were vastly more sophisticated than the rudimentary efforts of previous morale investigators, but their intent was the same. Hoping to perfect the collaboration between citizen-soldiers and the army, the Stouffer group provided commanders with detailed reports of soldiers' predilections, including discussions of how some army policies had inadvertently hurt morale. The Research Branch, for example, compiled an impressive amount of evidence that infantrymen felt their branch, which bore the brunt of actual fighting, had the lowest status of any combatant service branch. As a result, the chief of staff initiated a systematic campaign to improve the prestige of the infantry by raising their pay, awarding them distinctive medals, and publicizing the feats of infantrymen throughout the service. . .
Once again, the army hoped to secure veterans' postwar support for expanded defense funding, and this time, it used troop surveys to devise demobilization policies avoid to the mistakes made during World War I. The Research Branch surveyed 20,000 soldiers on the most equitable way to discharge wartime troops and discovered that they wanted the army to award points to each soldier that reflected his days in combat, time overseas, number of children, and length of service. This wartime research made it possible for President Roosevelt to claim that the point system was "based on the wishes of the soldiers themselves." The end of the Pacific war came sooner than expected, however, disrupting these carefully laid plans. The army was in the midst of preparing for a massive invasion of the Japanese islands when the dropping of two atomic bombs caused Japan to surrender. Scrambling to demobilize its wartime force quickly, the army soon abandoned the point system and instead released men when it no longer needed them. As in 1919, overseas soldiers were furious when their return home was delayed, and widespread protests broke out in the Pacific and Europe in 1946.
The smoldering resentment of officers' privileges and court-martial practices presented one final similarity between the two world wars. In 1946, the army and public conceded that the time for permanent reform had arrived. Many of the reforms instituted by the 1946 Doolittle Board echoed proposals made after World War I by Raymond Fosdick, chairman of the Commission on Training Camp Activities.
Read the entire article on the Roads to the Great War web site here:
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